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Bach Suites for Solo Cello with Nathaniel Rosen

01-05-2022 | By Rushton Paul | Issue 119

What a pleasure it is to have this recording from 1994 of Nathaniel Rosen playing the complete Bach Suites for Solo Cello. Rosen brings his broad flowing strokes and lyricism to bear with delightful effect in these pieces brought back to us by John Marks and HDTT.

Bach Suites for Solo Cello, Nathaniel Rosen, cello. HDTT (1994, 2022 (24-44.1)

I am an unabashed enthusiast for the performances of Nathaniel Rosen. I've written previously about his recordings (HERE) and I'm delighted that John Marks has been able to bring us yet another. Rosen's playing simply dances in these performances. His interpretations are uniquely his own, eschewing historically informed performance practice but never falling into the abyss of overly romantic playing either. He applies rubato, but he lets the music flow with a lithe grace.

As Les Berkley writes in his 1994 Stereophile review, Rosen's interpretations of these pieces "unfold beautifully and lyrically, impelled by a technique that is at once virtuosic and unselfconscious."

Rosen plays his beautiful 1738 Domenico Montagnana cello—an instrument with a deep, rich, redolent sound—in what is clearly a large open space that allows the sound to breath and resonate. The microphone capture is just about perfect, giving us an excellent balance of direct and reflected sound from the room. Kudos to Jerry Bruck, Chief Engineer and Owner, Posthorn Recordings, NYC, who recorded these performances in Music Division Recital Hall, Purchase College of the State University of New York.

Music Division Recital Hall, Purchase College, image from their website

The sound quality of this early digital recording is surprisingly, very surprisingly, good. Back in 1994, few of us could ever have heard just how good this really is. I certainly would not have had the opportunity. This release from HDTT is sourced from the original 20-bit 44.1kHz digital edit master tape. As such, it has stayed entirely in the digital domain from recording to our ears, without intervening duplication or DA/AD conversion. And, because it was originally recorded at 20-bit, and transferred in this release to today's standard of 24-bit, the original tape contained more information that would an alternative 16-bit recording.

John Marks writes:

"This release is based on a new transfer from the original 1994 edited digital master tape, which was created from the 1993-94 session master tapes. All of these tapes were recorded on a Nagra D digital tape recorder recording at a 44.1 kHz sampling rate, 20-bits, on quarter-inch tape, which at the time was considered by many as state of the art (a Nagra D recorder retailed for c. $27K in the early 1990s). Of necessity, this same machine was used for the recent transfer made in preparation for the instant release. Since the recording was digital, the 1994 edited master tape did not degrade the sound of the session tapes. The original unedited session tapes were available to us but unusable."

So many will ask at this point, "just how many different recordings of the Bach Solo Cello Suites can one have?"

Oh, I'm definitely the WRONG person to ask. I have easily a dozen and more complete sets, including (in no particular order) those by Casals, Starker, Bylsma, Ma, Rostropovich, Shafran, Eijlander, Tunnicliffe, Fournier, Helmerson, Wispelwey, Isserlis... Plus transcriptions for violin from Rachel Podger and for guitar by Segovia and by Hoppstock. Plus individual suites from Elinor Frey, Martin Zeller, Frederic Rosselet...

No, don't ask me how many is too many.

And they are all different, deliciously so.

And I don't have a favorite, because every artist brings something very personal and very different to their interpretation of these works.

Over the past thirty years, 4-6 new recordings of the complete suites have been issued each year. Just take a look at the year-by-year summary shown at the JS Bach Cello Suites website for a rather eye-popping series of album covers displayed by year of release.

Bach Solo Cello Suites Album Covers, courtesy of JS Bach Cello Suites website HERE 

While I don't have favorites, I do have some recordings to which I listen more frequently than to others (e.g., Starker, Ma, Bylsma) to which group I'll very likely add this new release of Rosen's recording.

I like his flexible dance-like approach to these works. They are dances, after all. I like that he is not constrained in his meter, but happily varies it according to how he feels about the music in that moment. I'm sure this must drive others crazy. Not me. I live for this kind of free flexible music-making. It's joyful and it makes me happy.

Happily recommended.